- 3D printing has been around for decades but hasn’t lived up to its hype—or its potential.
- Consumer 3D printing has many problems; this article offers solutions to the most common ones.
- Industrial applications in manufacturing and construction are on the rise. There are still barriers, as well as great potential for innovation and sustainability.
First imagined at the close of World War II, 3D printing transformed into a viable part of the manufacturing industry in the 1980s. The technology became part of the zeitgeist in the 2010s with the introduction of inexpensive desktop 3D printing, a technology that was supposed to upend the entire relationship between designing and making. There was just one problem: The results sucked.
Additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, was always a great idea. Heavy manufacturing has made it work at scale, though it still has far greater potential to explore. And the practice of consumer 3D printing lags behind other transformative digital-era technologies like social media, e-commerce, or cloud computing. Here’s the full scoop on 3D-printing problems, beginning with consumer-grade fused filament fabrication (FFF) 3D printing, which uses more robust materials than resin-based SLA and DLP 3D printing. Then, the industrial applications of 3D printing are examined, focusing on where they’re headed for manufacturing, construction, and beyond.
Consumer-Grade FFF 3D-Printing Problems and Solutions
A consumer 3D printer is essentially one large moving part. But the process—applying material to a substrate to create an object in the physical world from a digital design—involves a lot of smaller moving parts, any of which can go wrong. When they do, it’s often due to some common problems—which also have workable solutions.
Problem 1: Ringing
When an extruder (the “print head” of the 3D-printing device) stops or abruptly changes direction at a sharp corner, it’s affected by inertia—the force that affects any mass when it rapidly accelerates or decelerates. This can cause the extruder to wobble back and forth slightly to reorient itself to the position that the design in the source file dictates, which can result in the characteristic wavy pattern, or ringing, wherever it had to change direction.
Solution 1: Slow Down
Turn into your driveway at 60 mph, and you’re going to feel the effect much more than if you were doing 15 mph. The same goes for a 3D-printer extruder, and the fix is the same, too: Slow down. Most consumer-grade devices have simple controls accessible through a menu on the device or the application on a computer or smartphone. There, you’ll find process settings to adjust the speed of the extruder. Where material is being applied, you need to be slower and more careful, and where it isn’t, you can speed things up and save time.
Solution 2: Mechanical Fault
If the cause of ringing or errant wavy patterning isn’t in the software, you’d be surprised how often there’s just a screw loose. Literally. The tiniest vibration from a fastener coming undone or a minuscule split in a strut or bracket might send your extruder into paroxysms barely noticeable to human sight. Watch your printer closely in-process, and you might be able to pinpoint the vibration that reveals a simple mechanical problem causing all the trouble.
Problem 2: Bed Non-Adhesion
Just like excess inertia in the print head can cause problems, inertia in the previous material layer can also ruin everything. If the first layer isn’t properly affixed to the build platform, every subsequent layer will be laid down slightly off as it moves, with chaos theory rendering the end product nothing like your digital version.
Solution 1: Completely Level the Platform
Higher-end consumer 3D printers often have adjustable beds, with screws or knobs to make adjustments. If it’s not completely level, one corner or side might be slightly higher, so the extruder is farther away from the bed at certain points, giving the material more room to go wrong.
Solution 2: Mind the Gap
The distance from the extruder nozzle to the build platform (or previous layer) is also adjustable in most cases. When using the most common 3D-printing material, polymer plastic, a good rule of thumb is to situate the nozzle close enough to the bed to slightly “squish” your filament to the plate for proper adhesion. You can find a happy medium depending on your geometry and material. Considering each layer is usually about 0.2 mm thick, make sure you use very small increments to find the ideal distance.
Solution 3: Slow Down the First Layer
If the first layer isn’t done carefully enough, it won’t bond to the build platform. If it shifts and moves, subsequent layers will be off-center. Change your settings to lay down the first layer more slowly than the others, giving the material plenty of time to cool and bond.
Solution 4: Cooling Settings
It’s physics (again). Plastic shrinks when it cools, and the first layer’s bonds with the build platform can weaken or break as your first layer shrinks. The build platform is heated to a specific level to control the cooling speed while the rest of the geometry is added, so depending on the complexity and detail in your model, the first layer of material might be cooling too fast or too slowly on the bed. This is something you can change in your device settings or firmware, depending on your needed output.
Problem 3: Stringing
Stringing is when the 3D-printed race car, Darth Vader head, or piece of tiny furniture looks like it’s draped in cobwebs, as if the plastic kept oozing out of the extruder when it should have stopped (a phenomenon that lends the problem its other name: oozing).
Solution 1: Retraction Problems
The extruder nozzle retracts from the model when the specifications say it shouldn’t be adding any material. It depends both on the settings in your device software or firmware and on the intricacy of your model, but if the nozzle isn’t retracting far enough or fast enough, it can leave characteristic strings attached to surfaces where they don’t belong.
Solution 2: Hot Stuff
If the material temperature settings are too high, the process may still retract the nozzle when it should, but the material inside—more malleable thanks to the increased temperature—might leak from the nozzle in tiny amounts, which the extruder will affix to your model as it moves to the next surface.
Solution 3: The Long Game
If the extruder only has to make short movements between surfaces, it can give any overheated material less time to leak from the nozzle. During longer trips, there’s more time for oozing to occur. Smart-build software can help, planning the construction using the lowest possible number of long trips across empty space. A further solution to long spaces is to change or program settings for the extruder to make faster movements across such empty spaces, giving oozing material less time to emerge.
How Industrial 3D Printing Can Change Manufacturing and Construction
Imagine a world where materials could be formulated right where they’re needed using additive-manufacturing technologies. The construction industry could use 3D printing to upend manufacturing if done right. Need to build or make something? Take a 3D printer and a few blocks of raw material with you—from plastic to iron filings or concrete to the organic structures of organs—and print it where you’re going to use it. Instead of starting with a large object and removing material to achieve a desired geometry, 3D printing uses exactly the material needed, no more and no less, rendering waste almost negligible.
Construction is among the least sustainable industries on earth. In 2003, it was estimated that 30% of building materials delivered to construction sites was bound for the dump. And annual construction waste is projected to reach 2.2 billion tons globally by 2025.
That doesn’t even account for the use of fossil fuels for vehicles and machinery to source, process, and transport material to and from a site. On-site 3D printing could reduce the need to transport concrete or lumber to a building site or to carry away waste. It would also reduce or eliminate piles of off-cuts from subtractive manufacturing processes that have to be disposed of or reused sensibly and safely.
Using heavy supplies and subtractive manufacturing methods also limits building to areas accessible by heavy trucks that need decent roads or expensive spacecraft that need to carry heavy instruments into orbit. Additive technologies will open the possibilities of building more stuff in less accessible places, like the scheme to colonize other planets using materials sourced where the spaceship lands to 3D print structures.
3D Printing in Manufacturing Preproduction
Even if 3D printing isn’t widespread in global manufacturing by next week, it’s already making preproduction cheaper, faster, and more innovative.
Developing prototypes of tools, devices, or parts used to require virtually the same manufacturing infrastructure needed for production: a whole factory of expensive and cumbersome lathes and milling machines.
With 3D printing, you can develop rapidly from a smaller operation like a maker studio, garage, or a table in a spare room, finding the optimum design faster and cheaper by going through more iterations. This takes manufacturing out of the hands of billion-dollar factory owners; today’s technology behemoths all began in proverbial garages, and tomorrow’s manufacturing revolution will do the same.
In fact, they already are: 3D printing gives the next generation—those who will innovate the way things are made—the means to get away from the drawing board, developing and prototyping better than industrial-level manufacturers with entrenched workflows. Move fast and break things, indeed.
3D-Printing Technology Limitations
If the previous points paint the picture of a democratized maker utopia that’s going to save the planet from runaway climate change and waste, the real world is quite different. Here are some of the limitations still plaguing 3D printing—both in the consumer and industrial realms.
Limit 1: Materials
While polymer desk toys and paperweights are cool, they were never going to make a whole new industry mainstream. Traditional manufacturing works with almost any material, but there are only so many substances that can be melted and forced through a desktop extruder.
Even so, cars, laptops, and TVs today are made using entrenched processes that keep the price down by spreading the manufacturing cost among near-endless numbers of units. Even if it were cheaper to manufacture using 3D printing (which it isn’t), you’d still need different additive technology for each material. If you wanted to build a car that contains metal, rubber, plastic, and glass, for instance, you’d need a different 3D-printing device for each component—assuming the technology exists to 3D print all those substances (which it doesn’t).
Limit 2: Cost
Cost Item 1: Equipment
Yes, there’s a whole class of 3D printers below the magic $1,000 mark. But they address the desk-toy market, not manufacturing. Unit for unit, 3D printing simply can’t stack up against traditional manufacturing yet. The kind of 3D printers needed for anything on an industrial scale beyond rapid prototyping will cost between several thousand and several hundred thousand dollars—quite out of reach for tinkerers or hobbyists.
Cost Item 2: Materials
There’s a reason 3D-printing services cost more than buying a 3D printer to do the job yourself, and it’s largely due to the materials needed. These materials will certainly get cheaper as the technology becomes more popular, but as you use heavier materials for bigger, more robust geometries, the pipeline of established subtractive methods using CNC or lathes spreads the cost per unit further than additive manufacturing can.
Heavy industry manufacturers can buy raw materials in such volume it makes the per-part material cost almost negligible. By contrast, the most common polymer-based 3D-printing material, polylactic acid (PLA), ranges from about $9 to $23 per pound. More specialized engineering varieties can be $27–$55 per pound.
Entry-level industrial additive manufacturing resins can be about $23 per pound but can go up to $68–$181 per pound. So by the time enough volume of polymer raw material warrants a better price, you’ll have outstripped the investment you would have put into traditional manufacturing by orders of magnitude.
Limit 3: Knowledge
The knowledge gap in 3D printing is a double-edged sword. On one hand, 3D printing is not as easy as early supporters made it out to be, because of the wide variety of competing proprietary formats and standards among files, devices, and operating systems. Users also need at least some expertise in the principles of CAD, other 3D design systems, and how the hardware works.
On the other hand, it’s easy to get hung up on the technology, putting the cart before the horse and missing the point of 3D printing completely. It has been used to make trinkets, parts, and prototypes, but one factor significantly holding the field back is a lack of imagination. Where is 3D printing headed? What are the limits of what it can do? How will systems, processes, and materials work together to bring about a better world?
A single part might not be able to compete with a traditionally manufactured object, and that’s not actually the point. That part or prototype might connect to another that can also be made using additive technology. Look to where the connections are in the whole system, and you might reveal many individual processes and pieces that can replace traditional methods, making the economics more compelling. That’s the knowledge needed to push 3D printing forward.
Scaling Businesses With 3D-Printing Technology
It has been easy to get caught up in buzzwords and trends, losing sight of what 3D printing can really offer. But the opportunities are real.
Statista estimated the additive manufacturing market will grow 17% a year until 2023 and the market for additive-manufacturing products and services will almost triple between 2020 and 2026.
More recently, the Middle East North Africa Financial Network (MENAFN) reported that the 3D-printing filament (raw plastic material) market is expected to grow at a compounded rate of 23.7% until 2025.
While the consumer sector got excited, got confused, lost interest, and moved on, manufacturers big and small have continued to push the envelope, beginning to usher in the promised manufacturing utopia. Advances have been made in many sectors, including the following:
Composite 3D Printing
Given the printing technology and materials available, creating a finished part with all components intact in a single step is possible—even those made of different materials.
Think of 3D printing, from a single extruder, a wall with wiring or air conduits already installed or a gear-and-belt system made from the requisite rubber and metal.
It’s been years since the envisioning of 3D-printed donor-compatible transplant organs; the technology is still not quite there, but the building blocks are being laid in some unlikely areas:
- KFC, a company not generally equated with high technology, engaged a Russian 3D-printing lab to investigate bioengineered meat that would replicate the taste and texture of chicken for use in chicken nuggets back in 2020.
- Scientists at MIT have looked at using plant cellulose as the basis for 3D-printing material rather than the petroleum-based plastics in widespread use.
- And there’s already a 3D-printed antiviral material its inventors claim would be effective against COVID-19 on surfaces—mainly intended for use in public facilities, creating products like door-handle covers that would kill viruses and bacteria.
The Future of 3D Printing
Plenty of technology sectors have had false starts. It’s true that many who jumped on 3D printing at the upswing of the adoption cycle were left disillusioned and wrote it off as a fad. It matured prematurely, if that’s possible. Early iterations were disappointing, but looking beyond the grand promises, snake oil, and headlines of the first generation shows what factories, makers, hobbyists, and industries are discovering every day: 3D printing’s time is at hand.
This article has been updated. It was originally published in March 2015.